Chasing a Donington Park record in the Stelvio Quadrifoglio
The fastest SUV round the Nürburgring is out for more lap records – we join the attempt at Donington with Goodwood’s chief instructor David Brise.
The idea a lap record set by a road-going passenger car has any relevance to anything whatsoever can probably be attributed to the modern obsession with Nürburgring lap times. Whatever you think about such chest beating, manufacturers apparently love the chance to be measured against their competitors and the hunt for lap records for hot hatches, SUVs and even vans has expanded beyond the ’ring. And, after Honda bagged various front-wheel drive hot laps with the Civic Type R, Alfa Romeo obviously sensed an opportunity to do something similar for SUVs with the Stelvio Quadrifoglio.
Typically a lap record is set by a tame hot-shoe, videos get shared online and there’s back-slapping all round in the marketing department. But credit to Alfa Romeo. Having already bagged the SUV lap record at the ’ring for this new round of records we got to have a go first.
First on Alfa Romeo’s hitlist for British circuits is Donington Park, the country’s first ‘park’ circuit with a history stretching back to the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. Drawing a line between the monoposto Alfa Romeo racing cars that raced at Donington back then and a hulking, 21st century super-SUV with little more than a cloverleaf badge in common is stretching credibility a tad. But with Alfa Romeo employing Goodwood Circuit’s chief instructor David Brise as the hare it’s an opportunity too good to miss.
He’s in the curious position of both being the man to beat but also instructing us on how to get the best time out of a 510bhp 4x4 with three-quarters of a Ferrari Portofino engine under its bonnet. Obviously, he doesn’t want to give away too much information and risk the humiliation of being beaten. But given he’ll be supervising our laps from the passenger seat he also has a vested interest in making sure we get round in one piece. So what’s the secret?
“Commitment and bravery!” he laughs. “But you also need to be tidy – it’s easy to over-drive it, especially here at Donington. But I’ve been really surprised at how you can chuck it around. It’s quite a benign car on the limit and although you feel like you have to wait for the understeer to pass when you turn into the corner, you can wind the throttle on and it turns into oversteer on corner exit. It just does stuff SUVs shouldn’t – when you’ve got it in Race mode it pops off kerbs like a touring car and feels totally set up for this kind of thing, which is really weird!”
He’s not wrong either. Sitting up so high while driving round a race track is a bizarre sensation. But Brise’s assessment is bang on – the Stelvio behaves in a way you really wouldn’t expect of such a vehicle. Even accounting for the weight it’s fast, the twin-turbo V6 sounding rude in its Race mode and pulling hard all the way to the redline in classically Italian fashion. The eight-speed gearbox is a traditional automatic, though the big shifter paddles feel lifted straight out of a Ferrari and respond with commendable precision.
But it’s the handling that astonishes most of all. You feel the weight under braking, the Stelvio pitching forwards onto its nose. Maintain a little pressure on the brakes and you can use that to your advantage though, the weight over the front tyres helping turn the car in while – as promised – assertive use of the throttle lets the rear-biased all-wheel-drive system power it into a four-wheel drift not entirely unlike those classic Alfa Romeo racing cars. Just one with five seats, a big boot and all the comfort and convenience you’d expect of any modern SUV.
When the scores come in the best we can manage is a lap in the low 1 minute 23 seconds region. David’s time? 1 minute 21.19 seconds, his pro skills and years of experience adding up to a decisive margin of victory and a tough target for any future record attempts to beat. Will any of this be of any relevance to Stelvio buyers and sway them into the car over a Macan, X5 or any of the other rivals in the market? Perhaps not. But the knowledge that cloverleaf badge on the side has some sort of link with the legendary old racing cars that raced here 80-odd years ago is the kind of romanticism a brand like Alfa Romeo thrives on.